An opportunity today for West Ham to get back to winning ways in the Premier League as they visit a weakened Leeds United at Elland Road. Having flown out of the traps with emphatic victories over Newcastle and Leicester at the start of the season, league form has since faltered with the Hammers having picked up just two points of the last nine available.
Indifferent league form has, however, been punctuated by two impressive cup victories: first against Dinamo Zagreb in the Europa League; and more recently over Manchester United in the Carabao Cup.
The win at Old Trafford was particularly unexpected. Having missed out on at least a point in the league fixture at the London Stadium three days earlier, an immediate rematch in cup competition looked a daunting prospect. The Red Devils and their expensive strength in depth were clear favourites in what was always going to be a ‘B’ team encounter.
It is difficult to gauge what effect the win will have on overall confidence given that Jarrod Bowen was the only player the starting eleven who is in contention for a start again today. It can’t have done any harm though, and there really does seem to be a strong sense of togetherness throughout the entire squad.
There has now been the opportunity to see each of summer signings in action, with positive first impressions. Alphonse Areola had a few uncertain moments but looks an ideal long-term replacement for Lukasz Fabianski. Alex Kral had a solid, hardworking debut and can provide decent cover for Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek when needed. Nikola Vlasic has shown great attitude, and some nice touches, but it looks like he needs extra time and work in adapting to the pace and intensity of the Premier League. All can prove to be astute signings and valuable assets even if they are not yet first picks on the team-sheet.
There were also other promising performances at Old Trafford, notably Issa Diop, Ben Johnson and Ryan Fredericks. If Diop can get his progress back on track, he can become the ‘monster’ he was once billed as. Johnson is a fine prospect although may find few opportunities behind Vladimir Coufal is his more natural right back role. I’m hoping playing him out of position is good for his development. It is a shame Fredericks picked up an injury laying on the goal for Manuel Lanzini (who himself is also starting to look rejuvenated). If only he could put his blistering pace to good use more regularly, he could have achieved so much more. A matter of confidence, I wonder!
For today’s game, the only likely change from last weekend should be the return of Michail Antonio, with Vlasic dropping down to the bench. No doubt in my mind, the team and game plan look far more formidable with Antonio leading the line.
Leeds have a number of injury problems. Llorente, Koch and Bamford are all missing while Raphina, Harrison and Ayling are considered doubtful. Following last season’s heroics, Leeds are so far without a win this term. Could there be a dose of second season syndrome circulating at Elland Road? Possibly, but a team that runs its socks off are sure to come good at some stage.
Matches against weakened sides have not traditionally been a Hammers strong point. West Ham are a very different proposition these days and I’m not sure I can remember a more hardworking, organised, disciplined, and spirited side turning out in the claret and blue. Old anxieties, however, are difficult to shake off and I still find myself judging the team’s ability to self-harm by historic standards. Will we get intimidated travelling anywhere north of Watford Gap? Is a three-goal lead with ten minutes remaining a big enough cushion? Will we buckle at the merest suggestion of a physical onslaught? A few more seasons of the current therapy and watching a game might even become a low-anxiety enjoyable experience. A good time to be a West Ham fan!
Can’t help feeling that we will be too strong for Leeds today. The home defence is not the strongest at the best of times but with players missing there should be plenty of gaps for our boys to exploit. A game against Bielsa’s Leeds will never be easy but West Ham to win 3-1. COYI!